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Monday, May 23, 2016

Life beyond the bubble.

Photo: J Scott Park, M Live
What follows is a selection from my talk at the annual LAND Conference this past February in Grand Rapids. It is the genesis of my new book, "Life beyond the Bubble" a collection of stories from my years teaching at the prison. 

The college where I teach, Jackson College, has a long and storied history with prison education. The stories from the academic campfire tell of buses full of dogs and guards showing up at 1 am to secure the buildings for the classes. The faculty were brought in shortly thereafter and secured in their classrooms at that ungodly hour of the morning.
For me, my CPAP and I are singing the songs of my people at 1:30 a.m., but these hardcore faculty apparently main-lined Red Bull and were ready to greet the buses full of prison students lining up along the college each morning.

Flash forward several decades, and we are once again back in the business of teaching the incarcerated. It was a big decision for me to do this. My husband I have two young kids and I have seen Oz on HBO. (fun fact: I dated the brother of the show’s creator in college). I also have two strikes against me, I’m gay and a teacher. Things didn’t work out so well for either of those demographics on the show if you recall. But seeing that I had been judged pretty much all my life as a gay man, I talked with my spouse, double-checked my life insurance and threw my hat into the ring to teach art history.

Due to the nature of the corrections environment, very little personal information is shared, in the classroom, or even with the Correction Officers (COs) and staff. A designation of “over-familiarity” can end up with the prisoner being transferred out of the facility. So in my prison classes, my sexuality is off the table, whereas on main campus, I am out and proud and don’t hide who I am. Each week when I enter “the Bubble” that space between freedom and incarceration, I also step back into the closet and hide who I am as a gay man. With that in mind, I had to ask myself why I wanted to teach at the prison. Why would I risk my life and well-being to teach those that might not ever step foot outside the perimeter of the prison again? They find solace in the artwork and the stories of its creation and creators. One gentleman remarked that he’ll never leave the facility as a free man, but through my classes, he traveled the world and saw things he could never imagine.



Last winter here in Michigan was one of the coldest on record with many days in single digit and below zero readings thanks to the Polar Vortex. As I walked with my CO escort to my classroom inside the prison to teach my art history class one day last winter, I remarked how quiet the prison yard was, even with the wind howling in our ears. The yard is typically filled with prisoners and guards, walking, lifting weights, playing soccer or just sitting, but today, with the temps in the single digits, it was a barren tundra. The garden that I watched grow and bloom the previous summer was mowed down flat, buried in a snowy blanket of white.

“Yeah, said the guard, we have to keep the inmates in when it’s this cold. These fucking animals don’t know when to come in out of the cold.”

I was stunned by his description of the prisoners but held my tongue. We continued across the yard and arrived at the modular classroom set up next to the soccer field. As he fumbled for the key to unlock the classroom he muttered under his breath, “I don’t know why you’re teaching these assholes. They don’t learn, they don’t listen, they’re just fucking animals, plain and simple. They need to be in cages, not classrooms.”

Photo: J Scott Park, M Live

I have learned that you only engage in pleasantries while in the prison, anything deeper than “nice day, eh?” can lead to much more than you’ll ever want to hear (from both sides of the prison wall). I thanked the CO and began to set up my classroom as I do each session. The students are excited and motivated to learn, even if it’s something they know nothing about or will probably never use while incarcerated. I have had many “lifers” as students, men who will never see the outside of the prison due to their crimes. I was initially worried about reaching this group as I wondered what was left for them.

Why learn?

Why care?

Why do anything if you know it’s hopeless.

But it’s not hopeless and the lifers are prime examples of this.

One of the men remarked that he couldn’t wait for his release as he wanted to go back to Art Prize (in Grand Rapids, MI) and finally be able to talk about the art and not feel stupid. One of the men, a gifted artist, eagerly shared with me his work and humbly asked for my opinion as to what pieces he should consider submitting for the annual University of Michigan Prisoner Art Show. His artwork was exquisite and showed maturity and mastery and I was thrilled to offer him my critique.

So why do I teach these fucking animals each week? It’s easy, they’re not animals, they’re humans and they’ve made bad choices in life, we all have. They’re doing their penance, and they’re making better choices than what landed them behind bars.

It’s not easy work, teaching never is, but its rewards are often more than you can ever imagine.


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Saturday, September 12, 2015

So long, farewell.



When I first started my blog in 2009, we were a small family of three. Legally married in California but not here in Michigan. I started jotting down the moments in our lives that helped the folks that didn’t know us understand a little bit more of who we are and what we stood for.
I have always been very passionate about LGBT rights and the inequalities that we face daily. But I was especially cognizant of these issues as I knew they might have an effect on our daughter (Eli was not yet in the picture). I also began my book, a “how to” manual of sorts of guys wanting to start a family via adoption.

The blog, at the time, was a nice sounding board for potential stories to include in the book, as well as a place to share ideas and get feedback. I made a few dollars off of the site via Google, but in all actuality, I wasn’t in it to make money, I was in it to share.
But in the past three months, we’ve made significant strides in the world of LGBT rights. We still have a long way to go that’s for sure. But the coda for our story came yesterday as I was finally able to legally adopt Eli, almost 6 years after his placement with us. Our journey isn’t over, but right now, we’re going to take a breath and refresh ourselves. We’re going to step away from being the poster children for Marriage Equality here in Michigan and we’re going to focus on being a family.

Tod and I sat in our hot tub last night, talking about the exciting day we had and this subject came up. Tod posted this on his Facebook page, and it sums up what I am trying to say:
Last night Tom and I had a very surreal conversation one I never thought we would have. We can breathe, we don't have to keep fighting, we are married, we are both legal parents to both of our children, and it is true "All you need is love, but a Supreme Court ruling doesn't hurt!

So for now, I’m suspending this blog (like Rick Perry’s presidential campaign) and we’ll revisit it when the time comes or events warrant it.

It’s been a crazy long trip, and it is far from over.

We’re thankful that we have had you along for the ride.



Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Meeting our Dadelgängers

I was contacted by Sean to write a review for his upcoming book “Which one of you is the Mother” the other day, and after reading the hilarious and moving book, I realized we had finally met our dadelgängers in Sean and Todd. Seriously. We have yet to meet these two, but I found myself looking over my shoulder for surveillance cameras as I read about their exploits and adventures with their two boys. 
This is the review I wrote for the book:   
Sean Michael O’Donnell and his husband Todd gave up their lives of endless clubbing, leather chaps, and glow sticks to become parents. The party bus is now a minivan, the chaps have been replaced by #dadbod appropriate jeans and t-shirts and the endless clubbing is now an endless quest for a clean house and a decent night’s sleep.
I don't like to think of us as boring, just profoundly unremarkable…, writes O’Donnell in the first chapter, but I beg to differ. Their story of starting their relationship to adopting their children is remarkable, considering all they had to go through as a gay male couple. Their story is one for anyone, a story of true love, commitment and what it means to be a family in the US in 2015.
Upon reading “Which one of you is the Mother?” I realized that my husband Tod and have our own dadelgängers in Sean and his husband Todd. There may be one less D, but their story is remarkably similar to our journey to parenthood. We’re just older and have cuter kids.
O’Donnell is a natural story teller who puts the reader front and center in their daily lives. It’s a story of hope, a story of compassion, and a story for anyone who has ever wondered what those Club Kids from the nineties are up to these days.

A synopsis of the book here:
After fifteen years of up-all-night gay disco dance parties, Sean O'Donnell and his longtime partner Todd decided to trade in their leather chaps for mom jeans and start a family. In August 2012 the not-so ambiguously gay duo walked into a Pittsburgh-based adoption agency and said, "We'd like a child, please." For the next several months they attended parenting classes, subjected themselves to probing FBI background checks, and completed enough paperwork to reforest the whole of the Amazon River basin. Despite lacking a magical baby-making vagina the pair successfully made omelets without eggs when in July 2013 they flew to Oregon to meet their seven-year-old son for the first time. No longer Sean and Todd they would now be forever known as Dad and Papa to the observant boy ("So that's how you sleep.") with a million questions (“Do you have a girlfriend?”, “Where do babies come from?”, “What’s gay?”) No sooner had they settled into their new roles when the stork returned the following year, delivering another boy who quickly proved that five-year-olds were basically talking babies who could use the toilet. Which One of You is the Mother? is the story of how two gay guys finally met the two kids who were always meant to be their sons. This is a book that celebrates a different kind of family who just happens to be like every other family on the block. Only gayer. And funnier.   

  
Sean and Todd and their boys. 
You can follow media-whore Sean here: http://seansbiggayblog.com/ 
I’d give you his phone number, but he didn’t share that with me.


After you buy my book, scrape together some change and buy his. 




Thursday, July 2, 2015

Tom's Post-#SCOTUS Suck- it List

I am not always a gracious loser, many of you will know that I have been nominated for the J. Ward Preston Faculty of the Year award at Jackson College twice now, and I have yet to win. I am the Susan Lucci of JC, always nominated, but never winning. I do take comfort in my 2005 award of the MEA Higher Ed Art Teacher of the mother-fuckin’ Year award for the state of Michigan and I dry my tears on that when I don’t win locally. But I digress.
In the past, when my rights as a gay man were trampled on, I raised a ruckus. And rightfully so. Over the past 12 or so years, I have been portrayed as a pedophile, a villain, and someone who is not worthy of basic human rights, including, but not limited to marriage, raising children, and equal protection under the law. So, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I am going to do a hi-5/victory lap and shove my status as a full and legal citizen down the throats of my haters.

Let’s call this Tom’s Suck-it List.

So, who to pick on first?

1.       My number one is the Mormon Church. Yes, you all can suck it and sing about it later. The Magic Underwear Cult spent a lot of money trying to derail Tod and my legal marriage in California in 2008. I had to school two of their young recruits out proselytizing in our neighborhood. When the fresh-faced teen rang our door, after walking under a rainbow flag and bunting, I stopped them in their tracts and started asking them if they knew how much their church spent trying to destroy our marriage. I then pointed to the rainbow décor and asked them if they knew what that was. They didn’t. I suggested that they have a serious sit down with their elders and discuss this, and what the fucking rainbow flag means (Mormons = stay away) and move on. To this day, the young LDS pedal right by our house and don’t bother us. More on their marriage shenanigans here


2.       The Knights of Columbus. Fuck you and your pancakes. We don’t need you. When Jesus (or Baphomet) come back, how will you answer to them and your wanton spending on this cause? People are literally starving and you’re holding breakfasts to raise money to fight our legal marriage? Choke on your pancakes assholes. More on their feathered lot here 


3.       Speaking of choking on your food… my third entry is Chick-fil-A, the religiously pretentious chicken eatery that denies you their goods when your hangover is the worst (Sunday). Yes, they abide by biblical law by not operating on the alleged Sabbath but have yet to share which definition of the biblical family they are following. Concubines? Multiple wives? Hey, if you’re going to follow the bible and alienate those who respect LGBT folks, you better have your story *ahem* straight. Until then, piss off. 


4.       And then there are these guys… NOM. Nom nom nom nom nom… chew on our victory haters! I hope it tastes as good as I imagine. The time, the tweets, the marches, the MONEY, and don’t get me started on Maggie’s hair. Please go away now, you’re no longer needed

5.       My final entry is a group, but then I will hone my focus and single out one. Yes the G.O.P. The Republicans. The Party of Stupid. We were out to eat with our friends on election night 2004 and two horrible things became clear: Prop 2 here in Michigan (outlawing same sex marriage) and W’s reelection were going to happen. We glumly ate our food and a jubilant waiter ran by hi fiving people yelling “Four more years!” I wanted to cry, and then stab him with my steak knife. The GOP used the issue of same sex marriage as a wedge issue, an issue to get out their rabid base and secure Bush’s disastrous second term and it worked. We were their unwilling pawns in their quest for power. One candidate here in Jackson was Rick Baxter. His campaign flyers were an offense to anyone who cared about their LGBT friends and family. Ironically, Rick is now on his second or third marriage and is going through a rather nasty divorce. So yeah, where is the sanctity of marriage now? It’s all a memory and thankfully we can all move on.


So yeah, all the aforementioned can officially Suck It! Think of what you could have been doing with all that time, money, and energy that you expended making my life a living hell. Meanwhile, I will bask in my newfound status as a married man here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and not give two fucks about your precious feelings or alleged religious freedom. Move on haters.
Happy 4th everyone!


Monday, June 29, 2015

Musings on Marriage Equality from a Straight Ally

This is Donald. Sorry boys, he's straight. Photo by Pamela Ann Berry


I had the opportunity to work with Donald Seaman a few years back at Jackson College when he was working with the Theatre Department. His sense of humor and love of learning is contagious. He posted this on his Facebook page on Friday after the SCOTUS ruling and I asked him if I could share it with my audience. I am humbled by how many straight allies we have out there, and it’s heartening to know that we did not go into this battle for marriage equality alone. Thank you Donald for your friendship, your support, and your prose. You need to write a book dude.
I’ll shut up now and let Donald speak:

It’s a great day for the U.S.A. everybody! Ours is the 23rd country to remove its head from its hind-end to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples. I really, really, really wish we had been the first (ambition should be made of sterner stuff) but it is a grand day indeed and we are all better for it. I want to share my enthusiasm and write as gracefully as Justice Kennedy, but I fear there is naught left to say. I will share a post from a couple years ago to clarify my point of view but before you read that, I feel compelled to draw a minor parallel to something I was part of yesterday.
We recently finished an ESL teaching certification course here at UT-Austin where one of our students was a blind refugee. He was a curious, playful and endearing student and we all grew fond of his humor and his charm. During the final week of class he invited several of us to his home and yesterday four of the teachers were able to join him for dinner at his apartment where we learned a bit about him and ourselves. The visit went as I expected it would; he was generous, gregarious and sweet. There were some brief moments of tension as we tried to decode his broken English and forestall awkward faux pas due to cultural confusion, but overall it was very pleasant and I think everyone was glad they could attend. I have met, known and served visually impaired people in the past, but I have never been in the home of a blind man. His was a tidy, comfortable apartment, not unlike my own but for minor differences. After just a few moments I understood the privilege and advantage of sight. We were able to make a few discrete adjustments on his behalf, but long-term remediation was beyond our grasp.
The relevance to today’s Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage is this; while I can imagine what it’s like to be blind, I have the luxury of opening my eyes. I am not blind and I am not gay, so whatever degree of sympathy I have for oft-marginalized populations, I fear I can’t truly empathize with them. I realized that I can do what I’m doing now; I can write and advocate on behalf of my colleagues and friends, but I can’t really put myself in their position because there will always be seemingly minor but realistically gargantuan details about which I haven’t the foggiest. I noticed things which I simply hadn’t imagined but which were so obviously problematic that I was forced to meditate on my good fortune. When the news broke today I immediately reflected on what I learned yesterday and I thought that this ruling might be as restorative and empowering as the gift of sight would be for our student.
“To live, to see the sun, to be in full possession of viral force; to possess health and joy; to laugh valiantly; to rush toward a glory which one sees dazzling in front of one; to feel in one's breast lungs which breathe, a heart which beats, a will which reasons; to speak, think, hope, love; to have a mother, to have a wife, to have children, to have the light” - Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
I was glad for the political progress, but I also felt a sense of relief for every encumbered individual who could finally count themselves as a fully vested member of society because many of these people are my artistic, philosophical and intellectual heroes. Perhaps this is empathy? I don’t know. Hitch and Stephen Fry were more succinct and poignant in their remarks during the Intelligence² debate in October of 2009:
“Well, I say that homosexuality is not just a form of sex, it’s a form of love, and it deserves our respect for that reason.” - Christopher Hitchens
“It’s a little hard for me to know that I am disordered, or again to quote Ratzinger that I am ‘guilty of a moral evil’ simply by fulfilling my sexual destiny as I see it. It’s hard for me to be told that. To be told that I’m evil. Because I think of myself as someone who is filled with love, whose only purpose in life was to achieve love, and who feels love for so much of nature and the world and for everything else and who like anybody decent and of an education realizes that in order to achieve and receive love it’s a struggle.” - Stephen Fry
I too think of myself as someone who is filled with love and whose only purpose in life is to serve love and to achieve love, but all things are not for all people. Marriage may not come to me, to you or to someone you think deserves it. We are not entitled to all that we covet, but neither should we be envious or bellicose to those who perfect their passions.
I recently found an old high school portfolio from Mr. Lawrence’s psych class. I was amazed to find that even then I wrote in support of progressive drug policies, assisted suicide and gay rights. I don't mention it to fish for compliments, but simply to invigorate those of you who may feel that your current progressive beliefs may be far-fetched. I'm proud to say I've supported these issues for over twenty years and each is finally coming to fruition.
As for arguments contra gay marriage I am utterly uninterested and you can piss right off. The battle is over.
Below you'll find my remarks from March of 2013 regarding this very topic:

I'm an expert in nothing outside myself, and when confronted with a fresh donut even that proficiency is suspect, but I can claim to know what love is. (thank you, Forrest). I am not married, don't have a girlfriend, haven't been privileged to see my own child born, but I do know what love is. I adore my friends' kids. They are the best thing in my life. I am thankful every day for my parents and love them beyond comprehension. My brother is still a source of admiration and pride. He's so smart and we have a shorthand for humor that only siblings have. My friends have made my life better by accepting me as I was and enjoying what considerable mischief I could bring to their lives. Devotion is a pale shadow of what I feel when I think on my friends, so it makes no sense that I should ignore even a small opportunity to lend my voice in support of the only thing that gets me to put one foot in front of the other; love. There were nights of endless pleasure, as the song goes, but what motivates me to support marriage equality are the nights of endless solitude. If you have ever felt that earth-cracking avalanche of melancholy when you are the guest with no +1 or when another moonrise magnifies the empty seat next to you, why, why on Earth would you be so primitive, atavistic and crude as to deny love or even try to destroy it for another? This is not admirable, this is not leadership, this is not holy, spiritual, ethical, moral or laudable in any way. This is base. This is contrary to everything we learned in kindergarten. One memory always moves me. There is no delicate entrée for your gentler natures, but evening fell and we took our cue from the urges within, searching for our identities in each other's arms. I saw her wipe a tear away and smile. Unsure of just about everything at that moment I asked her what was wrong. She said "Nothing. Nothing is wrong. I'm just so happy to be with you and I know that you love me." Now, things fall apart, that relationship didn't hold, but the moment did. It was wonderful, it was tender, it was emotional, it was psychological, it was love. Not every story has a happy ending, but every tale has a teller. Each of us is writing a story. Each of us has different complications. There is not a single reason why love should be any more complicated than it already is. We are in a time when men and women are more comfortable living out loud, but think of the people you know who simply couldn't in their time. As Pooh says, "Together is a very grand thing to be." Let's get together and move forward, abandoning the irrational lunacies of a too cloudy past and perhaps, in the words of Hitchens, "our species would begin to grow to something like its full height if we left this childishness behind". I know what love is and wish it for all of my friends. Equally.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Doing time with the Post-Impressionists

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Vincent (Starry, starry night) Don McLean



After my lecture on the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, I ask the students to let me know which artist, or which piece of art, had the biggest impact on them. These artists are often labeled as boring or pedestrian as their humble scenes of domesticity and bucolic landscapes often go unnoticed. The artwork is what some consider “hotel art” or art that doesn't challenge or offend the viewer. However, once the students hear the back stories on these artists (particularly Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec), their opinions change and they view this art with new eyes and attitudes. One of the students, a quiet young man with a passion for music had this to say about Van Gogh.

The painting that I have come to enjoy more and more over the past few months is “Starry Night” by Van Gogh. I’m not a huge painting fan, so I don’t know much of his work. I know this one though and I love it with the colors, swirls, everything.
Van Gogh inspired me with this painting by reminding me of home. Being in this place, it is really easy to become “institutionalized,” or immune to reality. I’ve tried very hard to not let that happen to me and this painting, whether I see it or not, has helped me. Just thinking about it helps me to remember that there is more to all of this than just prison and someday, I’ll get to go home and experience that. That’s what keeps me going every day.
Thank you for this class.

I was humbled by this disclosure especially after a particularly challenging week dealing with the bureaucracy associated with the MDOC and teaching in this facility. I was renewed as I realized that for some, I was bringing a sense of hope into their lives, a sense of having a purpose beyond being a number in the penal system. It’s not easy work, teaching never is, but its rewards are often more than you can ever imagine.